Harry Miers and the Israeli Heter-o-dox Problem II
In my last post, I addressed the rather pessimistic prognosis of prominent Israeli Reform clergyman David Forman regarding the heterodox movements in Israel, and alluded that a recent JPost by David Golinkin might help explain things. But first, back to Forman for a moment.
In a JPost piece in 2001, Forman wrote at length about the injustice of so many fine Reform and Conservative clergyfolks in Israel, who have community service, army service, and peace activism to their credit, and yet are denied legitimacy, while Orthodox rabbis roam free, stomping on Reform prayerbooks, committing crimes and spewing hatred toward Arabs. At the time, I noted in a letter-to-the-editor that ” no amount of good works or reserve duty in the Israeli army should, on a rational level, be the criteria for rabbinic standing. Rather, whether the Jewish state should accord one the status of rabbi — teacher of Judaism — should turn on whether the religion he believes in and practices is that which has been known throughout millennia as Judaism. No honest appraisal of the facts would conclude that Forman’s Reform movement so qualifies. A belief system by, for and about Jews? Certainly. But not ‘Judaism.’ ”
But the truth is that there’s another response to be made to Forman’s elegy of inequity in rabbinic legitimacy, one that is amply illustrated by the recent Golinkin essay. The latter holds the prestigious title of president of Conservatism’s Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and is considered, in his circles, an authority on Jewish law. In his October 24th piece, he holds forth on four “deeper messages which are easy to miss amid the enthusiasm of the holiday” of Simchat Torah. The first three are no cause for comment.
The fourth, however, is that there “is no better proof . . . than the holiday of Simchat Torah” for the Conservative movement’s assertion that “the Halacha developed from generation to generation and from country to country.” After all, writes Golinkin, “Ya’ari showed . . . this holiday began in Babylonia in the 10th century and spread to the entire Jewish world, with each ethnic group contributing new customs. . . . In France they added the Ata Horeita verses in the 12th century. . . In Ashkenaz, in the early 15th century they added a hakafa . . . while the Ari and his students in 16th century Safed instituted that there should be seven hakafot around the bima.”
Now, the mere fact that Golinkin cites the notion of an evolving halacha as a uniquely Conservative proposition, with the corresponding implication that Orthodoxy’s halacha is ossified, should already call his rabbinic bona fides into serious question, considering that most every page of Shas, Rishonim and Achronim proclaims otherwise. So let’s be clear: that halachic outcomes can change over time is incontrovertible. The crucial issues on which the Mesorah and the masorti diverge, however, are these: was a legitimate mechanism for changing halacha used, and was there a legitimate underlying motivation for doing so? But, hey, the Conservative literature is rife with this kind of poppycock, so Golinkin is just being a loyal toer of the party line.
But then he rolls out the heavy artillery, the proof of which “there is no better” that Conservatism has the authority to, for example, permit divorcees to wed Kohanim and suburbanite Jews to drive to Shabbat services, or any other of its serial abrogations of Jewish laws both Scriptural and rabbinic in origin, and it is . . . the innovation of parading with Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah in 15th century Ashkenaz. Wait, there’s more — also the institution of Chatan Torah by 12th century French Jewry (it might depend: was it with or without a hot kiddush?). “No better,” ay?
In short, this fellow, vis a vis the Israeli rabbinate, is the male Jewish version of what Harriet Miers is relative to Scalia, Ginsburg, et al — well-meaning, gracious (perhaps active in good works and an army reservist, too) but, how shall we say, immensely, painfully, out of his depth. And, I suspect, Israelis of various stripes, however learned or observant they may or may not be, understand this.
They may not know even a line of Gemara, they may not even care much to observe any of the myriad laws it contains, but they intuit who is a rabbi, and who isn’t. They instinctively perceive that which JTS chancellor Louis Finkelstein said bluntly (as quoted in Rela Mintz Geffen’s The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dillemmas and Opportunities): “The Conservative movement is a gimmick to bring Jews back to authentic Judaism.” And if Israelis want the real deal, they know where to find it, but as for those hawking gizmos resembling the real deal, thanks but no thanks.
On second thought, with this Harriet/Harry analogy, perhaps I’ve been unfair to Harriet Miers.
That’s because by all accounts, Ms. Miers is unfailingly gracious, conciliatory and unpretentious; witness the way in which, after suffering what must have been an extremely humiliating ordeal of the most public sort of rejection, she went right back to her post as White House Counsel and participated in selecting the person who would replace her as nominee. No simple feat of character.
Would that the same could be said of some heterodox clergy, at least when it comes to the Orthodox. Exhibit One: A lengthy monograph by . . . David Golinkin, on the “Whys and Hows of Conservative Halacha.” In a discussion of what the responsa written by Conservative rabbis “reveals [about] six general characteristics of Conservative halacha, five of which clearly distinguish Conservative responsa from Orthodox responsa” he cites the following as the sixth such characteristic:
Finally, Conservative rabbis place great emphasis on the moral component of Judasim and the halacha. The mitzvot between man and man are no less important than those between man and G-d. . . . Paying taxes is no less important than sitting in the Sukkah. Honoring one’s parents is no less important than keeping kosher.
In one recent case, our committee was asked whether Jewish teenagers in Israel may visit mosques and churches in order to view their art and architecture. If these religions are viewed as forms of idol worship such visits would be forbidden.
But Rabbi David Frankel’s lenient responsum utilizes an ethical argument not discussed by the dozens of halachic authorities whom he quotes. He says that Israel is a country which is sacred to three religions and which is inhabited by adherents of those religions. Lack of religious tolerance can lead to violence; the responsibility for protecting minority religions devolves upon the Jews of Israel. We can help foster such tolerance by taking Jewish teenagers to visit mosques and churches. So such visits are permitted.
There is so much material in the foregoing passage to lampoon on so many levels, and so little time in which to do so. But refrain I must, else we lose focus. My reason for citing it is to point out the deeply outrageous, unspeakable, albeit quite subtle, calumny being raised therein against Orthodox halachists.
(I’ve cited this passage in full not only to give readers a jolly good time, but also because I want to be careful here. Golinkin cited six features, of which he wrote that five “clearly distinguish” his team from the Orthodox. Was this last one — taking moral values into consideration in deciding halacha –the exception to which he alludes? Even the close reader can’t be sure, but from the overall context it sure doesn’t look like it.)
So perhaps it’s unduly harsh on Harriet Miers to lump her in with the writer of those lines.
In any event, I’m not going to honor a libel of that sort with a direct rejoinder; instead I’ll end by quoting from a letter that Golinkin might have profited from seeing before venturing forth from his glassine abode to pen his piece.
It was written several years back by someone whose name I won’t reveal due to the private nature of the correspondence. Suffice it to say that he is very well-known and, indeed, anyone familiar with the American Jewish academic and denominational scene of the past many decades would instantly recognize his name. (I have also seen published sentiments by him that are in the same vein, albeit not identical to the following.)
He writes the following to Jerome Epstein, Executive V.P. of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ):
I have been thinking a good bit about your program for Conservative Judaism, announced in your address in Washington: “at least Kashrut and Shabbat.” I understand the frustration that yields that program. But I think you would have made a more profound impact on the synangogues of USCJ if you had selected two other mitzvot . . . ve’ahavta le’reakha kamokha and qedoshim teh’yu. Imagine what Conservative synagogues and the Rabbinical Assembly would be like if those were the mitzvot you selected as emblematic. . . .
I remember when I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, nearly fifty years ago, that everyone kept Shabbat and Kashrut (as a condition of admission), but it was then one of the most corrosive and nasty environments that I had ever known, or (after fifty years I can say) that I would ever know. It was an environment of brutal envy and malicious gossip. I just now met a rabbi, at the end of his career, whom I knew then, and after half a century, it was like pulling a plug: he was still making vile personal insults and they were the same insults he delivered so casually the last time I saw him, which was when Kennedy was president.
It was for that same reason, the incapacity to treat the other and his achievements with respect, that I dropped out of the Rabbinical Assembly after I graduated, and later on still, reached the conclusion that I could not identify myself with Conservative Judaism at all. All the Kashrut and Shabbat observance in the world cannot change Conservative Judaism and its rabbis.